Enduring appeal of 'misogynist' Picasso

·3-min read

"Women are machines for suffering," Picasso famously told one of his many lovers, Francoise Gilot.

Being a woman in the artist's life was a dangerous occupation. One of his muses lost her mind, another became a recluse. Two more took their own lives.

The contemporary portrait of the 20th century's most influential artist is that of a narcissist and bully. According to his own granddaughter, he autographed each painting with the blood of the people who loved him.

So Picasso is exactly the kind of character that, these days, might expect to face the wrath of cancel culture.

With a world premiere exhibition of his work titled The Picasso Century set to open in Melbourne on Friday, why do audiences keep looking?

No other artist has had the impact of Picasso, says National Gallery of Victoria director Tony Ellwood, and while his relationships were sometimes turbulent they could also be tender and generous.

"I'm not defending anything, I'm not saying either way, there's evidence he was not treating certain partners well, that's well known," he told AAP.

"It's what people want to pluck out, what they want to interpret with a 21st century lens ... it's easy to segment moments and then get into this idea of let's cancel the guy completely."

Picasso will probably never be cancelled, according to Melbourne University art historian Jane Eckett, but his life has become a deterrent for those wanting to appreciate his work.

"The number-one issue personally speaking is his misogyny ... no one can actually talk about his work without acknowledging the misogynistic intent," she told AAP.

Even his greatest innovation, cubism, fractures and dismembers the female body, reassembling it as a pile of so many bones, she said.

"His art practice was entirely tied up with his ideas of male privilege and male artistic genius ... You can't disregard them, you can't just look past them, they have to be acknowledged and dealt with," Dr Eckett said.

Yet according to exhibition curator Didier Ottinger, Picasso really loved women.

"He was fascinated by women, so the term of misogynist that we hear is absolutely stupid," he told AAP.

The assistant director of the Centre Pompidou said Picasso was the child of a 19th century patriarchal society, and what really happened between the artist and his lovers will always be a mystery.

The NGV began planning the show with the Centre Pompidou a decade ago, to allow for the constant demands from other international galleries for Picasso's work.

Dr Eckett believes the exhibition may put Picasso's legend back into perspective, by exposing him not as a solitary genius but a man influenced by his contemporaries, just like any other artist.

In the display, 80 of his artworks are hung alongside 100 pieces by others working at the time, including his muses Dora Maar and Gilot.

It's these works that should excite viewers, Dr Eckett said, with many of the artists rarely displayed outside Europe.

Among them are the Frenchmen Jean Fautrier and Edouard Pignon, American painter Dorothea Tanning and early Russian modernist Natalia Goncharova.

The inclusion of Cuban artist Wifredo Lam also offers an exciting post-colonial riposte to Picasso's appropriation of primitivist art, most famously in his groundbreaking Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Works exploring Picasso's complicated relationship with postwar politics are also worth the price of admission.

Picasso was dubbed a degenerate by the Germans in occupied France before emerging as a leader of the artistic resistance.

He also became a communist, but a really bad one, joining the French Communist Party essentially because his friends did.

"He was never going to sit down and read Marx and Engels," Dr Eckett said.

Dr Eckett is giving a masterclass on Picasso's post-World War II period on July 6.

The Picasso Century is open from Friday until October 9 at NGV International.

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